Some sports are more jingoistic than others

Why born-and-bred Dubliner Eoin Morgan's imminent selection for the England cricket team raises barely an eyebrow.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

People who follow international sporting competitions are familiar with the notion that you don’t have to be entirely of a nation to represent it. We saw this in evidence during this year’s football World Cup, in which one of Germany’s outstanding players was Mesut Özil, a midfielder of Turkish extraction. Better known still is Zinedine Zidane, a second-generation Algerian who aided France to World Cup glory in 1998. Even before Natal-born Kevin Pietersen came along, the English cricket team has long had a tradition of recruiting South Africans, while many an Englishman by nurture has represented Wales or one of the Irish teams at international soccer.

Nonetheless, this practice periodically raises objections. Quite a few English people found it particularly risible in the late-1980s and early-1990s that the relative success of the Republic of Ireland football team seemed to be based on recruiting a disproportionate number of Scousers and Cockneys. More specifically, it irked the English-English because that ‘Irish’ team had the temerity to beat England in 1988, and, unlike England, qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals.

Some scholars and commentators were eager to issue the corrective that the make-up of the Irish football team had historical and cultural significance. The Irish are known as a diaspora nation, so it was appropriate that the international team represented not just the people from the island, but the island’s people beyond it. What’s more, as some Irish-Irishmen were at pains to remind people, wasn’t John Barnes from Jamaica? (What a few really meant was: ‘but isn’t John Barnes black?’)

The English don’t have a diaspora in the same way the Irish or Jews or even the Scots do. When we went abroad we did so not as persecuted, exiled or impoverished underlings, but as conquerors who established an Anglo-Saxon culture and hegemony in the United States, Australia and elsewhere.

So on a cultural level and from a historical perspective, the idea of an Irishman representing England doesn’t make sense. There may be English people in Ireland, descendants of the Anglo-Irish, but no ‘diaspora’ or ‘community’ to speak of, who live in ghettos, are subjected to unfair discrimination, have their own newspapers and collectively sing laments about ‘ye olde country’.

However, the sight of Irishmen in English whites is becoming more common in the world of cricket. The Dubliner Eoin Morgan is widely tipped to be picked for the England cricket team for the forthcoming Ashes series. ‘From the age of 13, I wanted to play cricket for England. I’ve never felt any shame in saying this is what I wanted to do’, he told The Sunday Times [London] this weekend. ‘And the people at home involved in cricket, they were like, “Fair play, it’s going to be unbelievable if you make it”. So I’ve never had any shame about this and my father’s never had any shame about it.’ Morgan has been playing for England since April last year, following in the steps of his fellow Dubliner Ed Joyce who, after his ‘transfer’ from the Ireland international side, made his England debut in April 2006.

Why has no one in Ireland or England ever made about a fuss about this? Can you imagine the fury generated and temper-tantrums thrown by a similar scenario occurring in rugby union or football? Imagine if Brian O’Driscoll or Robbie Keane decided to ‘transfer’ to the England team? Accusing shrieks of treachery would come from across the Irish Sea, while even the English in England would feel that there was something amiss. Indeed, we’ve always felt slightly uncomfortable about the half-Welsh, Canadian-born Owen Hargreaves and his unfamiliar vowels.

Of course, this scenario is unlikely to happen. FIFA has been a bit generous in this department in the past. The great Alfredo Di Stefano played for both his native Argentina and Spain, while the ‘Magical Magyar’ Ferenc Puskás left Hungary after the Soviet invasion of 1956, also to move to Spain, which he then represented. Another Hungarian international, László Kubala, appeared in the colours of Spain and Czechoslovakia. FIFA continues to relax eligibility rules, but they can be diluted only up to a certain point.

Chelsea and Arsenal fans and the like may be happy to cheer on 11 foreigners on the field, but international football has a far deeper cultural importance than the domestic game, in that the players act as a microcosm of a nation, a projection of an imagined community. This is why those who don’t like football get excited during the World Cup, for the same reason that people go round trashing BMWs whenever England lose to Germany. To paraphrase Orwell, an international football match is war minus the shooting.

Other sports don’t get the jingoistic juices flowing quite as much. Sure, there was the alleged ‘Henmania’ a few years back, which I suspect was overplayed by the media. I never saw pubs heaving with drunken multitudes chanting at big screens, and I don’t remember reading any stories of people throwing sickies to follow Wimbledon. I think Henmania only ever existed on Henman Hill, and the less said about those posh twits the better. Andy Murray has aroused comparable levels of interest, but there has been the added distraction of the tedious is-he-British-or-Scottish debate. Tennis simply isn’t a national game, which explains why no-one was really bothered that Greg Rusedski has a Polish name and speaks with a quasi-Canadian accent.

Kevin Pietersen may get the odd ribbing on account of his foreign accent, but in the wider scheme of things, it’s of little consequence. Not least because he’s not the first South African to play for England. The most famous was Basil D’Oliveira. Some made excuses for the ‘Coloured’ (sic) South African’s England appearances between 1966 and 1972 by mumbling something about this being a gesture against Apartheid. And let’s not forget the birthplace of other England cricket internationals: Cape Province (Allan Lamb), Durban (Robin and Chris Smith), Queenstown (Tony and Ian Greig, who qualified on account of having a Scottish father).

None of this mattered a jot. This is because cricket is not a properly national game, and not even a fully international one. The dishonestly titled Cricket World Cup should be renamed England Versus The Ex-Colonies And Holland.

Nobody got that agitated either when the Corkman Brian Carney made his debut for the Great Britain rugby league team in 2003, which he represented on 14 occasions (declining, incidentally, to sing ‘God Save The Queen’ every time). That’s because, apart from a strip extending from Merseyside to Humberside, and among Australasians in London, most people in England and Ireland find this sport alien.

This is a shame, and not just because rugby league is superior to the other code. It’s a pity in that by poaching Carney and the like, the RFL are helping to keep the game a decidedly minority interest in Ireland. Likewise, cricket in Ireland will always be perceived as an anachronistic and eccentric hobby of the genteel Protestant households of south Dublin, County Wicklow, if England continues to steal any Irish player that shows promise.

And long may this continue. Here’s to Eoin Morgan, Ireland’s most promising sportsman in the world’s most boring sport.

Patrick West is author of Beating Them at Their Own Game: How the Irish Conquered English Soccer published by Liberties Press, 2006. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Read his blog here.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

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Topics Politics


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